Sunday, July 7, 2013

LI YOUNG LEE - God's Hungry Poet

Chris Cooper – 2,322 Words

Behind The Eyes of God’s Hungry Poet.

“My mother seems more excited about this book than most of my books.  I think not only because I dedicated this book to her but also she always felt that I wouldn’t stick it out.  I think after five books it suddenly dawns on her this isn't a passing thing.  I'm in it for life. This is my work.  She’s kind of taken an interest.  In her eyes, I have arrived; but not in my eyes.”   Li-Young Lee.

            Li-Young Lee, known as God’s Hungry Poet, has always thought of writing poetry as a spiritual practice.  
“I go into some room in my heart or in my soul where it’s just me and God.  Poetry, contemplation, worship, prayer, all of those kinds of things are all in one house but different rooms.  When I write poetry I go into that house.”
And that house is made visible in Li-Young Lee’s fourth book of poetry Behind My Eyes, published by Norton Press and released January 2008.  Lee has written three other books of poetry Rose, The City In Which I Love You, Book Of My Nights, and his remembrance The Winged Seed.   Behind My Eyes is perhaps Lee’s most personal book of poetry, particularly when relating to him and his family as refugees. 

Li-Young Lee’s father Lee Kuo Yuan (Perfect Country), the son of a rich gangster, married his mother, Jia (house) Ying (courage), the granddaughter of the first President of the Republic of China, Yuan Shih-k’ai. 

His first memories of his father are that of a Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a moustache. 
           “You couldn’t kiss him.   Every time he kissed me I just thought my day was made so special.  It did itch but I loved it.  He was that moustache for good and bad.  When he was angry that moustache was very scary and when he was kind that was just like God’s beard.”
Now, that he looks back at the most terrifying moments, Li-Young believes his father was bi-polar.
“There were a lot of problems because when I think about it, I think, how could he have been that way?  There were times that he would go into these fits of creativity where he would lock himself up and make painting after painting and suddenly he’d come out again.”
His father became a doctor, and was personal physician to Mao Tse-tung, whom his father considered a good friend.

            “They had a falling out.  And my father fled because as soon as you had a falling out with Mao he was in trouble.  He fled and left China.”
            The family moved to Indonesia where Li-Young Lee was born, the third of six children in August of 1957.  It was here that Lee Kuo Yuan became an intellectual in Western culture.
           “He recognized that Judea Christian thought was really influential in western culture.   So he was interested in Constantine, the early Christian writers, and the early Christian mystics, but purely as an intellectual interest.” 

At the time he also founded Gamaliel University, where he taught medicine and philosophy.  This didn’t sit well with Indonesia President Achmad Sukarno who killed half a million Chinese.  In 1958, President Surkona sent his men to the Lee household to arrest Lee Kuo Yuan and sent him to a leprosy colony for 19 months.  During those 19 months, Lee Kuo Yang converted to Christianity.
          “He had a bunch of experiences that he felt were coincident with the experience of Jesus and Peter being in jail, and Paul going through his own conversion.  All of those things suddenly dawned on him.  He felt that all those things he was actually living.”
Lee’s first memory of his mother is her breasts, which he described as “the safest place he knows of.”
           “I’m just looking for a safe place.  I feel that every poem I write is about my mother’s breasts.” 

            He also remembers his mother crying every day during those 19 months as she constantly wrote letters, received letters, paid bribery money, and visited the jail sometimes twice a day, all in hopes of getting a glimpse of her husband and trying to get him released.   
            Upon release in 1960, the Lee Family, who lost a baby son while in Indonesia, fled Indonesia when Li-Young was three.  The night of the escape, Li-Young, who was mute, talked for fifteen minutes in his Bahasa Indonesian language.  Then he remained mute until he came to America.  

            The family moved to Hong Kong, where his father started a church and became a famous evangelical minister, then to Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan, back to Hong Kong and, in 1963, to the United States, in Seattle, Washington where they resided for one year.  Then the family boarded a train to Pennsylvania, making a quick stop in Chicago, and then finally to Pennsylvania where Lee Kuo Yuan studied and received his theology degree.  The family then moved to the small town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania where Lee Kuo Yuan pastured an all-white Presbyterian Church.  It was here that Li-Young acted as his father’s secretary, typing his sermons with terror, as his father preached to him alone in his office.  It was here that Lee learned about communion, which he described in The Winged Seed: A Remembrance:

            On communion Sundays, I went with him after morning service on his rounds through the river valley.  We performed the ritual eating with those of his congregation who were “shut-ins,” those who never left their houses, mainly old, infirm, crazy or dying.  While my father drove, I kept my hand on the square, black case between us.  With a handle on the top it bore one shimmy clasp in the front which, undone, freed the lid and let the bifold front open outward, revealing inside the blue velvet interior and four small wooden tiers, each holding five brightly polished communion glasses no bigger than shot glasses.”
            Communion is a word that Li-Young likes to describe how he experiences and lives poetry: via communion with God.  His parents instilled in him the power and spirituality of poetry.
            He remembers his mother peeling oranges and cutting vegetables as she spoke the poems from the T’ang and Sung Dynasty.  He remembers his father sitting at the table, reading his King James Bible to the family.  The same King James Bible Li-Young keeps in his library and reads daily. 
            Li-Young attended University of Pittsburgh and majored in biochemistry because his parents wanted him to be a doctor.  But something happened that changed his entire life:  he met Professor Ed Ochester and Poet Gerald Stern.

            “They introduced me to poetry.  And the poetry they introduced me to just blew my mind.  As people, they were wonderful.  Gerald Stern’s expansiveness and his expansive nature amazed me.  (He is) tolerant of other people, other kinds of people, people with other religions, people with other backgrounds, people with other ethnicities, people of other class.  His work was that way, and his poetry was that way, and his being was that way.  And I was just inspired.”

Lee read Stern’s second book of poetry Lucky Life and carried it around his pocket for a few years.  He described Lucky Life as “the book that embraces all the levels of life, life’s sufferings, and life’s joys.” The book changed him and revealed to him that science was not his destiny, but poetry.  Ever since then Lee has been writing poetry, constantly, and usually at his kitchen table, where he likes to put himself in a state of total awareness.
I notice on a day-to-day basis my mind is obsessing about really small petty things.  I just get under all of that chatter and then I notice that there’s somebody inside of me who is actually not thinking about any of that, who is kind of aware of everything else.  How does my body feel?  Is it rested?  Is it in pain?  How the temperature of the world feels?  The quality of life?  The sounds coming from the other room?  It’s that kind of trance when I am aware.”
             Once this awareness comes to him, the poet within him becomes a medium between unconsciousness and Divine yearnings; the divine medium between that and the rest of the world” and the poem comes into being.  

Unfortunately, there are those that place greater emphasis on his history and his parent’s history instead of his poems.  This bothers Li-Young.
I don’t mind being asked about my history, but when too much attention is placed on the medium it would be like mistaking the minister or the priest for God.  I don’t like the emphasis on my history because I want to be a poet.” 
           When asked how he writes his poems he is not sure how to answer the question. 

           “Last night at about three in the morning I almost wrote a poem, but something was blocking me and I couldn’t understand what it was.  I could feel it like something saying, ‘No you’re not ready.  You don’t know enough yet to write this.’  So I didn’t write it.  I try not to be too conscientious about it and then I try to be conscientious about it.  I don’t’ know what works.  Every time I write a poem I don’t seem to know how to write it.  You would think the poems I’ve written would help me write this one.  I guess all that knowledge it took to write the other poems doesn’t help me write this one. But I know if I’m living every day from a deep place that helps.”           
The person that helps him reach that deep place is his wife, Donna.  
           “My sense is that she lives from such a deep down place like so deep that for me to live with her I have to meet her there.  Otherwise, I can’t find anywhere to meet her.  It’s been a challenge for me to go that far down inside myself.  I just feel as if I want to live there, stay there because I’ve gotten so much out of doing that.  I’ve been pretty lucky.”

           Li-Young remembers first seeing his wife Donna, when both were in the fifth grade attending his father’s church.
          “We sang in the little children’s choir.  I was just crazy about her.  I remember staring at her knees in the choir.  I had every intention of marrying her.  I was in the fifth grade.  I would walk up to her but the most I could manage was a mean look.”
         “I never had the courage to ask her out on a date.  I was a poor minister’s son.  I think my father was making something like $5000 a year.  And a lot of times he would go and visit shut-in people and poor people and he would buy them food out of his own pocket.  It was very confusing to me because we were just barely inking by and he was doing that.  When I worked in the summers I would give all the money to the family and try to help out.  So I had no money of my own.”
Nonetheless the two become close friends, spending time together and then when they ventured into high school they became sweethearts.

            “Even before I asked her to marry me I said, look I’m crazy about you and I want to marry you but I want to tell you your probably in for an unconventional and strange life and you can jump ship anytime because I want to jump ship from my own life.”
They got married in 1976, and lived through some tough spots, particularly the care taking of Li-Young’s dying father.
           “It was rough on me and I feel like Donna’s a saint.  The whole time I was taking care of my father and going through that I remember that whole summer I was there bathing him and I just kept saying, “Donna, I know all my attention is going here and I know if you wanted a more fun life maybe you regret even having married me.  You can go anytime.  I can’t shirk this.”  She just toughed it out with me.” 
Li-Young and his mother were the main caregivers of his father.  His mother was taking care of him 24 hours a day but needed help.
          “She couldn’t lift him out of the bathtub.  The bathing part was very difficult and it took both of us to do it.”
In 1980, he died of congestive heart failure and diabetes that he suffered from that year.  
Now, Li-Young described his mother as a sad woman at 88, but at peace.  She lost two children, her partner of a lifetime, but at the same time she gained liberation.
I think there were parts of her that remained undeveloped or dormant when she married him.  After he died those parts started coming out.”

       Now, the present, this moment, is a pleasant time for Li-Young.  He and his wife have been married for thirty-seven years and they have two sons: Shyu Tang (Hall of Exquisite Souls) Rainer Lee, 29; and Yu Tang (Hall of Fine Souls) Richard Lee, 28. 
           “My mother and sister named the boys.  It’s tradition for my father to name them but he was dead.  Rainer and Richard were the names Donna and I decided together.”
He also lives in a three apartment house with three generations of the Lee family:  his sister and mother live on the first floor; his brother Li-Lin and wife Denise (Donna’s twin sister) live on the second floor; and Li-Young and Donna and their children live on the third floor.

And now, when night is in the present, you’ll find the poet Li-Young Lee writing poems at his kitchen table, saving all of his revisions, and relishing in the life he feels God called him to be:  God’s hungry poet. 

1.  Li Young Lee.  Copyright by Chris Cooper or Li Young Lee.
2.  Behind My Eyes jacket cover.  Published by Norton Press on January 2008.
3.  Rose jacket cover.  Published by BOA Editions.
4.  The City In Which I Love You jacket cover.  Published by BOA Editions.
5.  Book of My Nights jacket cover.  Published by BOA Editions.
6.  The Winged Seed jacket cover.  
7.  Yuan Shih-k'ai.  Public Domain.
8.  Mao Tse-tung.  Public Domain.
9.  Achmad Sukarno.  Public Domain.
10.  Li Young Lee:  "My mother holding my older sister as a baby and my oldest brother Chung.  Chung was eventually left with his maternal grandmother when my parents fled mainland China.  He couldn't travel because of scarlet fever.  My parents would not see him again until they got him out of China when Nixon opened communications with Mao.
11.  The Lee Family several months after fleeign Indonesia.  Lee Kuo Yuan, Jia Ying, Fei, Li-Lin, and Li-Young (far right).
12. The Winged Seed:  A Remembrance jacket cover.  BOA Editions published on April 16, 2013.
13. Professor Ed Ochester.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike.
14. Gerald Stern.  Public Domain.
15. Lucky Life jacket cover.
16.  Li-Young Lee.  Copyright by Li Young and Donna Lee.
17. Li-Young Lee.  Copyright by Li Young and Donna Lee.
18. Li-Young and Donna Lee.  Copyright by Li Young and Donna Lee.
19.  Li-Young and Donna Lee.  Copyright by Li-Young and Donna Lee.
20.  LI-Young and Donna Lee, Christmas 2012.  Copyright by Li-Young and Donna Lee.
21.  Li-Young Lee.  Photo by Donna Lee.  Copyright by Li-Young and Donna Lee.